Foods & Culinary

The Dallas chef wants to redefine our understanding of southern cuisine

In 2009, Dallas-based chef Tiffany Derry received a call that would change her culinary career forever. On the other end of the line was TV production company Magical Elves, who asked the cook if she would like to appear on the seventh season of Bravo’s culinary contest series Top chef. “I said yes, right, that’s not Top chef. Stop calling me, ”Derry recalls. “I said no at first. I don’t do theater, I’ve never lived or worked with people. Then they said I could win $ 125,000 and my answer was, ‘Damn it. I’ll be there.’ I had never seen $ 125,000 before! ”

The rest, as they say, is history. In the years following her career on Top chef, Derry has turned into a real food TV celebrity with peerances Chopped, Top chef junior, Bar rescue, and of course the series that made them famous. She opened two locations of Roots Chicken Shake, a quick-casual place to toss crispy chicken that’s fried in duck fat. Most of the time, however, Derry didn’t run a full-service restaurant in her hometown. But that changed in June when she opened the much-anticipated Roots Southern Table in the Farmers Branch.

The last time Derry ran a full-service restaurant kitchen in Dallas was in 2013 when her critically acclaimed uptown hotspot Private Social closed its doors. Private Social opened in 2010 and made Derry a household name in Dallas. Loved by critics and diners alike, it is the place where Derry’s signature dish – incredibly crispy chicken fried to perfection in duck fat – was born. After Private Social closed, Derry went into business for himself, followed a variety of cooking and consulting appearances, made regular television appearances – and developed a vision for the restaurant that would become Roots.

Derry spent seven years meticulously searching for the right location for the restaurant and figuring out exactly what its identity should be. “The concept has changed slightly. In the beginning it was about how far I can push the boundaries of southern cuisine, ”she says. “Now it’s a matter of showing more reverence to what I call ‘family dinners’ or what we ate around the house as kids.”

Sliced ​​duck breast is served on a blue plate over dirty rice with a brown sauce on the edge

Peking duck breast over dirty rice with grilled peaches.

Black-eye pea hummus served on a white plate and garnished with black-eye peas and celery leaves

Derry puts the finishing touches to their black-eyed pea hummus.

In addition, however, Derry had to fully embrace her southern identity, which can be a bit of a challenge for a classically trained chef with an interest in a variety of cuisines. “I didn’t feel very well in my whole southern area. I was still trying to figure things out, ”she says. “Southern food doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, and people have the wrong idea of ​​what they think ‘southern food’ really is. It’s not just macaroni and cheese and home cooking. It’s so much more. ”

The decision to bet on the cuisine of the South was an extremely complicated one, especially for one of the few prominent black chefs in the industry. In her previous restaurants, like the Private Social, Derry’s menu spanned a wide range of cuisines and influences, and she wasn’t sure if Southern cuisine was exactly what she wanted to represent in the industry. “There were things I had to go through in life to fully understand that I wanted to,” she says. “I didn’t want to be classified in a kitchen. Every time someone sees a black chef, they assume that you are cooking soul food or southern food. ”

Ultimately, Derry found that the southern kitchen was what she felt most comfortable with. At Roots Southern Table, Derry is redefining expectations of southern cuisine. For years, the foodways of the South have often been defined by white chefs, often masculine, and often to the exclusion of many influences that the cuisine has lost, including West African and Native American flavors. “It’s all about who stirs the pot. When you are in New Orleans and see this large Vietnamese community, these people are still southern cooking southern food. Everyone who settled in this area created dishes based on what was in that area and a unique cuisine developed. I’m more focused on telling these stories and what we can do with local ingredients from the south. ”

The menu at Derry’s new restaurant combines the flavors she ate in southeast Texas with her diverse experience and training in dishes like crab-laden gumbo, inspired by her mother’s secret recipe, zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies, and jerk-flavored lamb chops.

Chef Tiffany Derry, a black woman, is standing in front of a bar in a blue chef's coat and black trousers. The white wall behind her is lined with liquor bottles.

When she opened the restaurant, Derry knew she could expect a range of opinions from diners about whether or not her southern dishes were actually true southern cuisine. “We all have in mind what ‘authentic’ southern states mean, and it’s usually based on what your mother or grandmother cooked when you were growing up,” says Derry. “These are very personal memories, and when you cook dishes that are supposed to evoke this feeling, people always have something to say.”

That seems to be true in Dallas, a city full of transplants from around the world, but especially for those hailing from more rural parts of the south. To have a strong opinion on what makes a perfect macaroni and cheese Dish is practically a rite of passage for anyone from the South, which means that serving a very specific interpretation of a dish that people hold dear can be fraught with controversy. For her part, Derry has decided to forego serving mac and cheese altogether – you won’t find it on the menu in any of their restaurants.

In addition to food, Derry also has an important vision to change the way the hospitality industry works. This desire arose from her own experience as the only woman – and often the only black cook – in the kitchen. “When I decided to get up alone and never work for anyone else again, I knew there were things I wanted to do differently,” she says. “For me, it’s about everyone having a voice. I want to have a diverse cuisine, not just men and women, but also people of all races. ”

In her restaurant, Derry wants to make sure that the people who work for her don’t have to fight like her. Get paid above the industry average, starting at $ 12 an hour for chefs, and have access to paid time off and health insurance. She’s also working to dispel the mentality that a worker’s life must revolve around the restaurant in hopes of making health and wellbeing the norm in an industry that is also rarely a priority.

A restaurant dining room with white and blue chairs, white tables, and pendant lights from the ceiling

The dining room in the Roots Southern Table.

A banquet at the Roots Southern Table.  The seating is gray with light gray accent fabric, the table is white and covered with blue bedclothes, cutlery, glasses, and white plates

“As a chef in the industry, we didn’t make a lot of money. We worked like crazy, we didn’t have any free time, ”she says. “I remember all of these things very well. We are aware that everyone has a family, the restaurant is not the only thing that they have in their life. ”

And despite the ongoing hiring battles in the restaurant world, Derry’s strategy seems to be paying off. You’re still hiring; Roots Southern Table is less affected than many facilities, some of which have been forced to reduce or close their opening times due to staffing problems.

“Our core group is great and they are here every day. You are in the work. I am happy that they are happy and I know that everything is going better here, ”she says. “I need my employees. I can’t run three restaurants on my own and be on TV, creating products and doing all the things I want to do. I think if I take care of them, they will take care of me. ”

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